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Galison’s Q’s #5: What Should We Make? May 23, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Galison's "Ten Problems".
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Jumping off of “fabricated fundamentals”, Galison asks a related question: if we can make new natural things, what natural things should we make? It’s basically the same thing Donna Haraway was getting at back in the ’80s with her Cyborg Manifesto (I think–Haraway can be baffling). We’re all artificial now, so now what?

I don’t really see this as a history and philosophy of science question at all–it’s basically a political and economic question. We have some technology, so what should we do with it? Economists will tell us that we will be hard-pressed to come to conclusive answers because individuals hold different values, and that market-type negotiations will instead determine what takes place. Is it possible to ban a technology? Probably not; if it’s valuable enough, a black market will develop. Then, if some people have access to it while others don’t, that changes the dynamics of what constitutes ethical and legal behavior (see the plethora of current IP issues, or the ambiguous social attitudes toward narcotics). Do we in the science studies professions have anything original to say on this score? I’m not too sure we do.

Thinking about this actually reminded me of one of the most interesting sci-fi novels I’ve read (I’m not really a student of the genre), Frank Herbert’s Dune, where a society 30,000+ years from now is highly technological, highly feudal, and highly religious. In this techno-ethical system, the highest technologies revolve around the mind. Interstellar travel is based on folding space, which is accomplished using a state of hyper-consciousness achieved through ingesting the spice “melange” (which only exists on the desert planet Arrakis, a.k.a, Dune). Melange is a pretty transparent stand-in for oil, and its trade is tightly controlled. But maybe a more pertinent point to this post is the fact that “thinking machines” (i.e. advanced computers) are religiously banned; in their place are “human computers” called Mentats. There’s more to the book than that; but it’s an illustration of the book’s overall treatment of the limitations on the use of technology in a time when technological applications are basically unlimited, essentially suggesting that fanaticism and totalitarianism (the book’s main plot revolves around the possibility of a coming galactic “jihad”) are the only replacements for economic behavior in a society where technology must be controlled. Interesting stuff.

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